Hazel McHaffie

oppression

Girl, Woman, Other

Did you know that last Thursday was ‘Super Thursday‘? – that day in the literary calendar when there’s a bonanza release of new books in time for Christmas. And this year, because of Covid-19 significantly delaying publication for authors across the board, as many as 600 new titles were released in 24 hours. 600! In one day!! SIX HUNDRED!! What hope is there for mid-or-below-mid-listers to be even noticed, huh? About as much as for a youngster with three C-grades-on-the-basis-of-teacher-assessment getting into Oxbridge, I’d say.

Seemed like a good week to home in on one title that has made the grade, big time: Girl, Woman, Other by Bernardine Evaristo which I mentioned in my post two weeks ago – co-winning the Booker Prize with Margaret Attwood‘s The Testaments. Evaristo is the first black woman ever to achieve this distinction, and she comes across at interview as a bundle of energy and zeal and determination. Positively effervescing! Given the high profile racial issues have been receiving of late, it could be argued that this book – its subject matter and its author – must surely be falling into fertile soil.

Girl, Woman, Other is Evaristo’s eighth work of fiction, which took her six years to complete. It’s written in a hybrid form that falls somewhere between prose and poetry, without capital letters or full stops for sentences, or proper paragraphs, line breaks being used to control rhythm and beat. Sound confusing? I know, and yet … it’s very readable (says this Booker Philistine with wonder in her voice). Here’s a wee peek inside …

The novel follows twelve characters, most of them black British women, moving through the world in different decades, from different backgrounds, having different experiences, making different choices. Each character has her own chapter, but their lives overlap and they are all interconnected in some way. Some of them are close – friends, relatives, lovers – others simply visit the same theatre on the same night. But common threads pervade their stories: oppression, prejudice, discrimination, racism, injustice, sisterhood. Which come in all shapes and sizes. Typically of literary books, there’s no real plot, but the characters challenge the reader to consider British attitudes and practices towards black women through the ages, and more importantly, one’s own prejudices and preconceived ideas.

The primary character and lynch-pin is probably Amma, a black lesbian playwright, now in her 50s, whose new play is being produced at the National Theatre in London. Her vignette starts the book; her after-play party almost concludes it. This part of the story is semi-autobiographical: Evaristo was co-founder, with two other women, of the Theatre of Black Women in the early 1980s. In between, we meet eleven other characters who range through frustrated teacher, abused partner, sassy teenager, nonagenarian farmer, non-binary person, adopted waif, and so much more besides.

Did it work for me? On one level, yes. I found the unusual writing style surprisingly fit for purpose. The characters come alive through their patois/pidgin, their disjointed paragraphs, their learned experiences over time. I especially enjoyed Carole, a Nigerian girl who rises above her circumstances – poverty, gang rape at 13, schooling in an establishment that specialises in producing teenage mothers and early career criminals – to acquire a degree at Oxford amongst future prime ministers and Nobel Laureates, and goes on to set the world of finance alight. And yet still finds herself overlooked and suspected. Then there’s her indomitable mother Bummi, determined to make a success of life against the odds, setting up her own very professional and superior cleaning services company, gradually accepting her daughter’s steps away from her African heritage, but herself accepted by the young English high society man Carole marries. I couldn’t help but take to the sassy teenage LaTisha, the queen of backchat, spouting her unique brand of philosophical wisdom and researched facts, all the while emoting pure insolence – a special skill of hers according to her teachers. And I really took to Hattie, 93 years old, a great great grandmother, still living alone and running the family’s 800 acre farm, outspoken about modern hifalutin ideas like mobile phones and non binary identity and central heating.

But for me, their brief biographies lacked a certain overall depth, and I’d have liked more development of their individual and collective stories. That in itself is a remarkable reflection. Booker Prize winners usually leave me shrugging my shoulders and saying, So what? This one left me wanting more. I’d call that a success.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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Behind Closed Doors

‘Behind closed doors’ … a familiar slogan, isn’t it? Instantly conjures up the horrors of domestic violence, abuse, and pathological relationships. And too often it’s women who are caught behind those doors, unable or unwilling to seek help, putting on a brave front for the outside world. So it seems like a fitting subject for a week that began with International Women’s Day on March 8th. The flags have already been raised: the Duchess of Cornwall calling for the topic of domestic violence and coercive control to be openly discussed, warning of the corrosive effect of silence; then the Duchess of Sussex using her last solo public platform before she retires from royal life to urge people to respect and value women. So let’s capitalise on that foundation.

Put the same term – ‘behind closed doors – into an Amazon book search, and instantly six titles of novels come up. Hmmm. Odd. My first check when I create a new title for my own books is to make sure it’s unique. But maybe ‘behind closed doors’ is irresistible. It’s so instantly evocative, speaking so powerfully, it can bear repetition without losing impact.

Hey ho. I’ve been sucked in, anyway. I already have two of those six ‘behind closed doors’ books on my shelves. The first one chosen because I’ve enjoyed Susan Lewis‘ writing before, and the second because I was – and still am – devouring anything claiming to be a psychological thriller.

Behind Closed Doors by Susan Lewis isn’t, I have to confess, as compelling as others she’s written. Fourteen-year-old Sophie Monroe has vanished along with her computer, mobile phone and a bag of clothes. The Detective Sergeant who’s investigating the disappearance is painfully reminded of a tragedy that tore her own family apart twenty years ago: her teenage sister vanished and has never been found. She struggles to separate the two stories and maintain perspective and judgement, as a tale of jealousy and fear and secrecy unravels. This one, to my mind, is overly generous with adjectives in places; all the characters seem to have secrets or tragedy in their past; and an improbable number of them have lost children or young parents. So I don’t plan to dwell on that one in this post.

Behind Closed Doors by B A Paris on the other hand, promised a lot. A debut novel billed as ‘makes your blood run cold … fast and frantic …heart-pounding … utterly compelling …’ it fits the basic requirements for a psychological thriller which I can analyse without previous baggage.

‘Grace Angel, wife of brilliant lawyer Jack Angel, is a perfect example of a woman who has it all – the perfect house, the perfect husband, the perfect life.’ So why are there steel shutters on their windows, high walls round their perfect garden, and one window barred? Yep, we’re wary already, aren’t we?

In his professional life, handsome, debonair Jack is the champion of battered wives. Grace has given up her career to be a stay-at-home wife so he doesn’t have to come home to an empty house or an exhausted partner. Losing is not a word in his vocabulary. And ‘everything he does and everything he says is calculated down to the last full stop. He prides himself on uttering only the truth … He is so clever, so very clever.’

Enter new neighbours, Esther and Rufus. Esther is a woman who’s suspicious of perfection. What is it with this completely joined-at-the-hip couple? Why doesn’t Grace have a mobile phone, or have her own email address, or go out to lunch without him, or honour arrangements …?

What really is going on does indeed make the blood run cold. Here is a dark mind, an amoral compass, depravity wrapped up in immaculate manners and a charming devotion. As the past and present inch closer together we are rivetted to the page, willing good to triumph over evil, dreading the psychopath out-manoeuvring the victim. The ending is very cleverly crafted and maintains the suspense to the very last page. Scary stuff but an excellent example of tense and fast-moving plotting.

But behind the fiction, lies the real-life problem. Let’s not forget hidden women everywhere for whom oppression or abuse or injustice in any form is their lived experience.

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Forbidden faces

You probably saw in the news this week that a leading Iranian model, Elham Arab, has been forced to publicly apologise for posting photographs of herself online without a head covering. Seven of the country’s leading models have been arrested, charged with ‘promoting corruption’ and ‘promiscuity’. This crackdown on the fashion industry is part of increased pressure by the new regime to honour ‘Islamic values’, and it leads me nicely to a book I read last week that I found both challenging and fascinating.

Imagine … you’re sixteen (the same age as my eldest granddaughter, so I’m using her as my personal yardstick). The year is 1996. The place is Kabul. To a great extent, the norm of living your whole life in wartime, never experiencing true peace, has numbed you to ‘the overall tragedy’ encompassing your country, to the ‘ultimate threat’ that’s to come. Having said that, until today you’ve enjoyed life, relative freedom, and the security of an enlightened and loving family.

My Forbidden FaceBut now … it’s 27 September. Suddenly everything changes. The Taliban have taken over your city. The president and his brother have been publicly tortured and hanged. Ferocious laws and prohibitions are imposed. Fingers are sliced off for sporting nail polish. Faces and backs are whipped because white shoes peep from beneath an all-enveloping burqa. Innocent young girls are gang raped and genitally mutilated for no reason at all. Women are dying because they are denied medical care. Small children are kidnapped, raped, strangled and thrown onto a rubbish dump for daring to seek clandestine lessons.

And in one fell swoop your whole future has been taken away. Why? Because you are female. You can’t study. You can’t work. You can’t go out without a male escort. You can’t be seen without oppressive clothing and heavy veiling.

Nor are men protected from degradation and horror. Football is replaced by a new atrocity. ‘Now justice takes place in public. They hang the accused from the goal posts, cut off the hands of thieves, execute supposedly adulterous women with a bullet in the back of the neck. This is a monstrous spectacle, intercut with obligatory prayers. Spectators are forced into the stadium with whip lashes.’ Two criminals are butchered to death by the father of their victims, a macabre spectacle watch by an estimated audience of 35,000.

Your brother is summonsed to the university where he sees the aftermath of an appalling massacre, bleeding human remains everywhere,  which he is expected to help clear up. ‘I saw a woman completely undressed … She was … she was nailed to one of those swinging doors at the faculty. They had cut her in two … in two parts. On each panel of the doors, there was half of her. Half of her nailed up body … And the door opened and shut. It was appalling.’

Propaganda attributes the ‘cleansing’ to religious motivation. But as your father explains to you: ‘A Muslim doesn’t kill another Muslim. Nowhere in the Koran is it written that we should take life. This is the final proof that they’re inventing their own Sharia, all the while wanting us to believe that whatever they decide is written in the Koran. Their laws aren’t written in the sacred book. They come out of the heads of a few mullahs who would do better to keep them for themselves.’ I’d guess most fathers in this country would use much stronger language that he does to condemn these atrocities!

If you still find it hard to imagine, I recommend you read My Forbidden Face: Growing up under the Taliban. Even the cover says so much: unseen dark eyes looking from behind a mesh of intricate embroidery onto a hostile unfathomable world, the very size of the mesh proscribed, reduced.

Mesh in burqa for eyes

The author is known only as Latifa – unlikely to be her real name. She modestly hopes that her story will ‘serve as a key for other women, those whose speech has been padlocked and who have buried their testimony in their hearts or their memories.’ She dedicates it to ‘all those Afghani girls and women who have kept their dignity until their last breath; to those women who have been deprived of their rights in their country, and who live in obscurity, despite the fact that we are in the twenty-first century; to all those executed in public, without trial and without pity, and under the eyes of their children and loved ones.’ Read it and weep.

Weeping is seldom allowable for Latifa. Emotions are frowned upon. ‘We each keep our sorrows to ourselves … This is a particularly Afghan way of proceeding.

She perceives the Taliban as dangerous and virulent bacteria propagating by spreading serious diseases, diseases that strike a mortal blow at freedom. She believes the world has forgotten her people. ‘I asked myself what kind of a world this was, so very distant from God.’

When she becomes ill and has to travel to Pakistan for treatment, she can’t help but compare the girls there with her own lot in life; so carefree, blase about their opportunities, not valuing education enough. She says of her friend: ‘She seems more superficial, less concerned than she used to be. Maybe that’s one of the things that freedom does.’ 

So what of my granddaughter’s generation today, in this country, with unlimited choice, enormous freedom? What are the lessons for them? I leave the last word with Latifa’s father: ‘You haven’t done this in vain. Trust me. Women listen to other women. Your testimony will make people here understand.’

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